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The Relationship Between Stress Eating and Food Addiction

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Last updated: 10/25/2018
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Modern-day culture has brought about fundamental shifts in how people work, play and relax. Likewise, the role of food in everyday life has taken on new characteristics as well. Stress eating and food addiction trends have quickly developed along the way.

Stress Eating

Stress can contribute significantly to food addiction.

One out of every three American adults meets the criteria for obesity as of 2010. While genetic factors certainly do make some people more prone to obesity than others, today’s obesity rates have more to do with lifestyle behaviors than anything else.

Modern-day life has no doubt provided its fair share of conveniences. Meanwhile, the levels of stress experienced by most everyone has increased considerably. Understanding the relationship between stress eating and food addiction is a good first step towards getting out-of-control eating behaviors back under control.

Signs of Stress Eating

Conditions involving overeating and obesity account for more than 280,000 deaths every year. Stress eating habits can greatly compromise a person’s health, increasing the risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Not surprisingly, stress eating makes a person more susceptible to weight gain, especially for people who live high-stress lives most of the time. While everyone’s circumstances may differ, signs of stress eating typically take the form of:

  • Eating when you’re not hungry
  • Eating as a self-soothing practice
  • Using food as a reward
  • Eating until you feel stuffed or full
  • Inability to control food intake amounts

Stress Effects

Stress can have different effects on the body depending on the intensity and duration of a stressful period. Short periods of stress can actually suppress the urge to eat. Under these conditions, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in and reduces a person’s appetite.

With long periods of stress, the body rather stays stuck in the fight-or-flight state, which increases a person’s overall motivation, including the motivation to eat. Once the stressful period ends, the body can remain stuck in this state and drive stress eating behaviors.

Hormonal Changes

Under periods of stress, the body releases high levels of adrenaline for the short-term and then switches over to cortisol to handle long-term periods of stress. Cortisol naturally increases a person’s appetite level and so provides the direct link between stress and stress eating behaviors.

Over time, high levels of cortisol in the body can generate ongoing cravings for salts, sweets and foods with a high-fat content. In effect, shifts in hormonal levels can ultimately drive a person to develop compulsive food-seeking behaviors.

Food Cravings

As stress eating drives cravings for salts, sweets and fatty foods, these food types in turn work to reduce a person’s overall stress levels, hence the term “comfort foods.” This immediate, positive-reinforcement effect quickly becomes a learned behavior.

Without even knowing it, a person comes to associate stress and emotions with the comfort food can bring. Like any other type of addiction, these behaviors only grow worse with time unless without needed treatment, and can lead to food addiction.

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